I’ve been thinking about Tom Petty a lot lately. The first week of October has become the time of year when I do that the most. This year was the third anniversary of his passing on October 2nd, 2017. I’ve written about him before, and how his death hit me and so many others so hard. Before he passed, his music always made me happy, and it still does, but there’s a twinge of sadness to it, kind of like October itself. Sure it’s autumn, my favorite season, but summer’s passing is never without some melancholy.
I’ve spent the last week listening mostly to Petty for a couple of reasons. The ones outlined above, but also because of two other reasons. The first is Steve Hyden. He released a fun list of his top 100 Tom Petty songs. Much like his recent similar Springsteen piece, it set me to thinking about how I would rank the songs and how I feel about each one of them. Our lists would be somewhat similar, particularly at number one, but different enough that it’s a fun exercise. It’s long but absolutely worth the read, especially if you’re like me and you enjoy hearing why other people love music. I’m always interested in other people’s stories of music, and Hyden is one of the best at telling them.
The second reason is Trapper Schoepp and his newly released cover of Petty’s classic “Walls.” Hyden has the song as number sixteen on his list, but it would be much higher on mine, and I suspect Schoepp’s.
Walls is from the 1996 soundtrack to the movie “She’s The One,” done by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. It appears in two different forms on the album, the record opener “Walls (Circus)” and then sped up a bit as “Walls (No. 3).” The first version (Circus) is my favorite by a couple of touchdowns. I love the bouncy rhythm of it, the Lindsey Buckingham backing vocals, and the deceptively profound lyrics.
The song opens with the line “Some days are diamonds, Some days are rocks,” which is a thing Johnny Cash once said to Petty that stuck with him. It sticks with me too. Lately, we’ve had so many rocks that it’s almost hard to remember the diamonds, which is how Petty felt when he wrote it. At the time, his 22-year marriage was ending, and he was going through an emotional wringer. The soundtrack is essentially his divorce record, his Blood on the Tracks, but instead of “Idiot Wind,” he wrote “Walls.” Not too long after he sang about the rocks, the diamonds started to come back, and by most accounts, he led a relatively happy and fulfilling life until he passed away. In the end, it’s a hopeful song, but a realistic one.
Trapper Schoepp captures that happy and sad dichotomy of the song by turning it into something gentle and delicate. Whereas the original is boisterous and almost playful sounding, filled with instrumentation, Schoepp strips it down to just a classical guitar, mellotron, and harmonized vocals with his brother Tanner.
The mellotron provides an almost lullaby-like texture, while Schoepp’s guitar fills in the gaps with a quiet, late-night style of playing. Even the vocals are sung in a soft and tender way, just above a whisper. It feels almost private. If you can imagine hearing someone singing and playing to themselves while looking up at the stars on their back porch on a comfortably chill fall evening, this is the song you would hear.
The art is cool too, a photo by the Flash Nights, and fits in with the vibe.
Schoepp is obviously a big Tom Petty fan. He’s done full Petty cover shows and released a version of “Free Fallin” that you should also seek out. Despite knowing that, this feels a bit different from most covers. I’ve been listening to it a bunch, trying to put my finger on exactly why, and I think I might understand. When I write about music, it’s always through the lens of my own life and experience. I write about how I see artists and their songs and try to tell the story of why. This cover of “Walls” feels like Schoepp is doing the same. I may be wrong, but I’d guess that when Schoepp has a rock of a day, this might be one of the songs he listens to or plays to try and get through to the next diamond. It doesn’t seem like he’s playing it for us, the audience, it seems like he’s playing it for himself, the artist.
The personal quality raises it up from a typical cover song into something special. Petty means so much to all of us that listening to this feels like an act of empathy as much as an act of listenership. In this particular year, in our particular circumstances, empathy is something that seems so lacking in the world at large that helping us all feel it by opening up with this song is almost defiant. Schoepp is sending out radical empathy in a year when it and hope are the things we need most.
The world has gotten so much smaller for all of us. More lonely, more empty, and stripped of the things that make it all worth it. The sundowns feel faded, the roads feel blocked, parts of so many of us are gone. Schoepp reminds us that we still carry with us those who are gone, some things go on, and that walls can fall down.